"He speaks the truth!"

"Our lives are his, born in his waters, made pure by the very blood we now raise to the sky!" Thomas thundered each word.

And Chelise cried her agreement. "It is as he says!"

"He speaks the truth." Their voices spilled over the canyon walls for any within a mile on this still night to hear.

"Remember Elyon, brothers and sisters of the Circle! Live for him! Ready the bride, make a celebration ready, for he is among us!"

"It is as he says!"

The volume rose to a crushing roar. "He speaks the truth."

"I speak the truth."

"He speaks the truth!"

"I speak the truth!"

"He speaks the truth!"

Silence.

"Drink to remember. To the Great Romance. To Elyon!"

This time their response was whispered in utmost reverence, as if each syllable was something as precious as the red water in their hands.

"To Elyon."

Thomas closed his eyes, brought the chalice to his lips, tilted it back, and let the cool water flow into his mouth. The red liquid swirled around his tongue then seeped down his throat, leaving a lingering copper taste. He let the gentle effects of the first few drops warm his belly for a second, then swallowed deep, flooding his mouth and throat with the healing waters.

They weren't nearly as strog as the green lake waters that had once flowed with Elyon's presence. And they didn't contain the same medicinal qualities of the fruit that hung from the trees around the pools, but they lifted spirits and brought simple pleasure.

He took three full gulps of the precious water, allowing some to spill down his chin, then pulled the chalice away, cleared his throat with one final swallow, and gasped at the night sky.

"To Elyon!"

As one, the Circle pulled their goblets from their mouths like parched warriors satisfied by sweet ale, and roared at the night sky.

"To Elyon!"

And with that cry, the spirit of celebration was released. Thomas turned to Chelise, drew her to him with his free arm, and kissed her wet lips. A thousand voices cried their approval, chased by undulating calls from the unwed maidens and their hopeful suitors. Chelise's laughter filled his mouth as he spun back to the crowd, goblet still raised.

He pulled her forward, so all could see his bride. "Is there anyone here who would dare not love as Elyon has loved us all? Can anyone not remember the disease that covered their flesh?" Thomas looked at Chelise and spoke his poetic offering around a subtle grin that undoubtedly failed to properly express his love for this woman.

"What beauty, what pleasure, what intoxicating love he has given me for my own ashes. In place of the stench that once filled my very own nostrils he has given me this fragrance. A princess whom I can serve. She numbs my mind with dizzying pictures of exquisite beauty."

They all knew he was speaking of Chelise, who had been the princess of the Horde, Qurong's very own daughter. Now she was the bride of Elyon, Thomas's lover, the bearer of his youngest son, who stared up at them with wonder next to Marie.

"He speaks the truth," Johan said, grinning. He took a pull from his goblet and dipped his head.

"He speaks the truth," they returned, followed by more calls and rounds of drinks.

Johan, too, had been Horde not so long ago, charged with killing hundreds—thousands by the time it was all over—of Elyon's followers.

Thomas thrust his goblet toward the Gathering, unmindful of the liquid that splashed out; there were seventy-seven pools filled with the red waters, and not one had ever showed any sign of going dry.

"To the Horde."

"To the Horde!"

And they drank again, flooding themselves with the intoxicating waters in a start to what promised to be a night of serious, unrestricted celebration.

"Aye, Father." The male voice came from behind and to his right. The husky, unmistakable sound of Samuel. "To the Horde."

Thomas lowered his chalice and turned to see his son perched atop his horse, drilling him with his bright green eyes. He rode low in the pale stallion's saddle and moved with the horse as if he'd been bred and born on the beast. His dark hair fell to his shoulders, blown by a hard ride. Sweat had mixed with the red mud that he and those of his band applied to their cheekbones; streaks etched his darkened face and neck. His leather chest guard was open, allowing the night air to cool his bared chest, still glistening in the moonlight.